Miss Benson's Beetle

By Rachel Joyce
  • Fiction
  • Historical fiction
  • Travel

If you have read any of Rachel Joyce’s previous novels, such as The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, then you won’t be disappointed in this one. Again, an unusual journey is the central motif of the story. But Miss Benson’s trip is much longer and riskier than Harold Fry’s and it will take her from London all the way to the southern hemisphere.

When we first meet middle-aged Margery Benson, she is being made the butt of a cruel joke at the hands of her pupils in a domestic science class. Her life so far has been a forlorn one; in September 1950 she has been teaching for twenty years and has no friends and no remaining family. Post-war rationing provides a dreary background to her own troubles and Miss Benson has no reason to suppose that her life won’t continue in the same low-key vein. But that’s before the classroom incident and Miss Benson’s dramatic departure from her unsatisfying job, clutching a pair of lacrosse boots belonging to the deputy headmistress (you will have to read the book to learn why)!

When Margery was ten years old, her father had told her about an almost mythical beetle, a gold soft-winged flower beetle that apparently lived in the northern part of an island in New Caledonia. Explorers were supposed to have seen it, but no evidence had ever been presented to the Natural History Museum. In her youth, Margery had longed to achieve that goal, but life and disillusionment had got in the way. Now, she resolved to head to New Caledonia and find this beautiful beetle, shaking the dust of London off and abandoning the dreary teaching job (she had never been a good cook anyway).

But first Margery needed an assistant, so she advertised in The Times and arranged to interview her applicants in the Lyons Corner Tea House. Not to plot spoil, I will just say that this does not go according to plan, but eventually Margery sets off on her trek with as unlikely a companion as she could have imagined. However, events proved that Mrs Enid Pretty was in fact, a very resourceful travelling companion and a real catalyst for change in Margery’s rather grey life. However, Enid was nursing a few secrets and needed Margery just as much as Margery needed her. The growing friendship between the intrepid travellers is the focal point of the story, which is told with warmth, compassion and humour. You will probably both chuckle and sniffle before you reach the final words.

This is a satisfying and entertaining read; as a bonus you are introduced to the world of beetles, rare and otherwise. You will also discover some practical ways of using Spam, should you ever require them.

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